Originally written for Outdoor Photography. © Niall Benvie.
I bought my first 20 mm lens (for a 35 mm film camera) in 1993 and at once fell in love with the big foreground, wide-angle landscape. I could summarise the whole scene in one shot and give prominence to interesting features close to me. Almost 20 years later, the technique seems tired and hackneyed and my enthusiasm for shooting this sort of picture has waned. Moreover, I have begun to wonder how much traditional landscape photography actually reflects how non-photographers perceive the landscape. Few see it in the full-bodied red light landscape photographers tend to favour; I’ve hardly ever met another soul on a dawn or dusk shoot. I suspect too that few people consciously make themselves aware of the foreground, middle distance and background spaces of the landscape; these are artistic constructs. Whenever I’m out with non-photographers, their interest is more often focused on individual elements of the landscape rather than the whole scene. “look at that buzzard flying above us; look at this spider’s web; see how the sun is catching the water across there; what sort of tree is that?”
So, at the end of last year I decided to make a piece of work that was, on one level, much more representative of a place than a single image could be, where those individual elements were acknowledged rather than diminished. Rather than construct a traditional landscape image, I would break down – deconstruct – the space into things that caught my eye. There would be no recognisable “view” since each visitor to that place creates their own visual definition of it and it would be shot in whatever light was available when I visited. Importantly too, I was determined that no individual picture out of the 200 that would make up the work should draw attention to itself: the idea was to encourage the viewer to explore the site through a series of vignettes but the visual effect would come from looking at the piece as a whole. Composition became a little more relaxed than usual, my choice of light less rigid.
I chose the Gannochy Gorge near Edzell in Scotland as the venue for my first “deconstruction.” This wooded ravine, crossed by the Highland Boundary fault, is not only close to home but is rich in the sort of detail I wanted for the piece. I decided to concentrate on five themes, all shot within the gorge and the mixed woodland above it: the sky; tree trunks; the ground; rock; and water.
It quickly became apparent that even in mid-winter there was a great deal of colour in the gorge that is lost in the traditional “big view” and many of the most vibrant images were of soaking rocks and beech trunks. It was also an enormously liberating way of working: I wasn’t hanging around waiting for sweet light; I could shoot the sky itself even if the light was terrible; I didn’t have to stress if the composition of individual panels wasn’t quite right as I was trying to represent what people might notice rather than superimpose a compositional convention on the subject. Indeed, many of the elements are quite banal but that doesn’t matter: they are simply the ingredients that go to make the cake.
It was important that each element was abstracted: I avoided reference to scale by excluding the horizon and, as much as possible, edges since they describe a subject’s size. By doing so, elements became a series of colours, textures and forms rather than identifiable, familiar objects, although there are some exceptions such as the boots and sheep’s jawbone.
A traditional landscape photograph is all too easy to take in at a glance and to move on to the next one. A deconstructed landscape, in contrast, demands the viewer’s time. It is hard work, in the same way as walking through a complex landscape with your visual sense on high alert is hard work. But I believe the effort is worthwhile simply because we can find a much fuller account of a place than is possible in “the big view.” The notion that we can sum up a place in a single photograph is simplistic and ignores the complexity that underpins the landscape.
Once I had selected and processed 40 images for each of the five themes, I created five Collections in Lightroom to help me order the pictures for each theme: this would speed things up later when I came to assemble the four panels each containing 50 pictures. The images were exported to a dedicated folder as 8 bit TIFFs (no need for 16 bits as they wouldn’t be edited again) and sized at 1181x 1775 pixels – the dimensions needed to fit the grid on the 7200 x 21600 Photoshop page I created to receive each set of 50 images. At a printing resolution of 300dpi, that comes out at two foot by six foot. I chose to break the piece into four panels for practical reasons; printers that make 8 foot wide prints are thin on the ground and my MacBook Pro won’t willingly churn through an unflattened file of over 5 GB.
The Santa Fé-based artist Matthew Chase-Daniel has created similar “broken down” landscapes but leaves no space between the individual elements. I wanted my viewers to be able to take a breath between visiting each vignette so left a narrow grey – neutral – margin between each one. While it should be possible to automate the placing of each element on the page, I prefer to do this manually with the Place command, allowing me the possibility to make changes to my original layout plan or even, since the layer is now a Smart Object, to rescale it, should I need to. As I placed each frame, I renamed the Layer to make it easier to relocate, indicating the initial row number and position in that row.
YOU CAN DO THIS
It is becoming increasingly difficult to have our work noticed today, not because of a lack of platforms – quite the opposite – but because of the sheer number of pictures people have to look at. But what if, instead of deciding to make another 1000 really good pictures again this year, you decided to make just six, or five or one unique image that had never been seen before? What if the picture was sufficiently complex in its technical aspects, original in its conception or time consuming its execution that hardly anyone could be bothered to do it. I’d suggest that that one image would receive a much greater audience than those 1000 good ones put together.
Deconstruction offers one approach to making these unique images (accepting the difficulties of presenting them properly on the web). The photographic equipment needed is simple: most of these pictures were shot with a Sigma 150mm macro lens or a 24 – 70mm with the camera on a tripod. You do not even need a camera with a high pixel count; each of the elements could have been produced with a 5MP (or fewer) camera. Even landscapes that do not lend themselves to the “big view” treatment can become sources of fascination when they are broken down into their component parts. That means we can work locally. The fact that we don’t need to be out at unsociable hours doesn’t impact on family life either.
In the digital age, the photograph need no longer amount to a single image. We’ve not yet scratched the surface of what we can do when we combine pictures to create single works: go and show the world what can be done.